StartingBlock takes off

When Chandra Miller Fienen graduated from Monona Grove High School, her parents encouraged her to expand her horizons. She left her hometown, got her undergraduate degree from Macalester College in St. Paul, lived in Japan for two years and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she earned a law degree from the University of California-Berkeley.

She worked as a litigator in San Francisco and later learned the ins and outs of the entrepreneurial and tech worlds in Palo Alto. But after a decade of practicing law, she was more than ready to return to Wisconsin — where she now is the interim director of StartingBlock, a five-year-old effort aimed at stimulating the regional startup economy.

“We want to bump Madison into the next tier,” she said.

Miller Fienen joined the StartingBlock team in 2013 at the behest of Scott Resnick, one of the organization’s original masterminds and its current “entrepreneur in residence.” Before that, she was vice president and a co-founder of a biotech company now known as Biorray Genetics and an executive in the state Commerce Department.

After some hiccups over the past few years, StartingBlock — which has local, state and federal funding — will make a major leap come this summer when it moves into one of the two high-rise buildings going up on East Washington Avenue. StartingBlock’s home will be in the American Family Insurance project aptly known as the Spark.

“Frankly for me, we’re finally getting into the part of the project that is most exciting,” mused Miller Fienen, who said StartingBlock will have an annual budget of between $500,000 and $1 million.

“I’ve been having fun. But I’ve also been waiting, patiently, for three years to get the building built. Now we’re moving into the place where we can really make a difference, where it’s going to be fantastic to see and work with startups.”

Miller Fienen said the entrepreneurial hub will cover 50,000 square feet over three floors and serve as a place for entrepreneurs, investors, advisors and community members to connect, share innovative ideas, and create next-generation businesses.

It will provide what she describes as affordable and flexible workspaces and educational programming. One dedicated staff member has already been hired to help startups recruit talent, which she said can be a big stumbling block.

She said her group supports and collaborates with others in the Madison region’s startup community, which already includes organizations like the Doyenne Group (for women entrepreneurs), gener8tor, Bunker Labs and Capital Entrepreneurs that are already working to link nascent businesses with investors. Miller Fienen’s desk is currently in the gener8tor offices on West Gorham Street in downtown Madison.

She said StartingBlock also continues to work with the UW-Madison Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, d2p and as Merlin Mentors.

“We looked around and saw that Madison had all the ingredients that ecosystem builders say are needed in order build a vibrant innovation ecosystem. We have the basic ingredients; we just need to put them together into a recipe that can elevate Madison to the next level. That’s StartingBlock’s task.”

Though entrepreneurs of past generations might have preferred to “work in their garages in isolation,” she said millennials and their younger counterparts “recognize that there are many things out there that they don’t know.

“They get it that things are changing so fast, and they want to stay on the learning curve. They also want to build relationships with people that they can trust and can give them good advice. That requires networking.”

One example of that effort was a recent MadWaukee Talks event co-sponsored by StartingBlock that brought startup data guru Tom Chapman to Madison. Other events are sponsored on a quarterly basis. At last year’s Forward Fest, her group ran a pitch competition in collaboration with 1776 and Revolution, both based in Washington, D.C.

“From the beginning, Starting Block identified three areas of focus,” she said. “One is how can we help cultivate entrepreneurs, increase the number of them and boost their success.

“The second is how can we accelerate growth for startups and mid-stage companies. How can we help them get to 20 and 50 employees faster and get those second, third and fourth customers faster. We think there is a place for us to deal with that.

“Lastly, we asked ourselves how can we collaborate with existing businesses and UW-Madison to drive innovation. We think having our space in the Spark will be a great way to move us well on our way down that road.”

By Brian E. Clark